The National's exhibition of Viennese portraits offers a coherent narrative and striking cultural perspectives

Cultured folk enjoy moralising over dead empires and few such realms offer better opportunities for sententious head-shaking than Austria-Hungary, smashed to smithereens by the Great War. The sense of impending catastrophe lends a special allure to Vienna in the years leading up to 1914. Side by side with Franz Josef, “the dear old Emperor”, and his starchy, protocol-obsessed courtiers lived Siegmund Freud, Artur Schnitzler, dodecaphonic composers and secessionist architects. We cherish this paradoxical synchronicity even as we delight in the shudder induced by the apocalypse awaiting them all.

While Facing The Modern, the National Gallery’s exhibition of Viennese portraits, can hardly sidestep the overarching doom, it avoids anything so vulgar as making this a raison d’etre. For once the basement space seems properly welcoming to the art on display, a coherent pictorial narrative beginning with the 1905 show of Biedermeyer art at Vienna’s Galerie Miethke and ending with the glassy blue stare of Amalie Zuckerkandl in Gustav Klimt’s unfinished portrait of her. The Miethke pictures, dominated by the painterly versatility of Franz von Amerling, validated Klimt and others as heirs to a solidly-grounded national tradition of Austrian portraiture.

From Biedermeyer bourgeoisie we are whisked seventy years onwards, into overheated drawing-rooms and nurseries full of families all too prone to various kinds of dysfunction. Contrast Richard Gerstl’s Fey Sisters, a pair of limbless phantoms in black and white, mimicking Goya and Manet, with the sombre vulnerability of Anton Romako’s The Artist’s Nieces. If a Viennese art critic could condemn Oskar Kokoschka’s harmless Playing Children as “these deranged visions from a sick childhood”, what must he have made of Egon Schiele’s The Family, painted in 1918? The nude grouping of the artist, his wife and an oddly Japanese-looking baby, crouched on a collapsed studio sofa, has a fatalism the more unnerving for its tranquillity.

From the undressed to the overdressed is the shortest of steps here. No exhibition of Viennese portraiture would be complete without a few flourishes from Hans Makart, self-styled ‘prince of painters’ in the metropolis during the 1870s. Just as imitative historicism characterised the buildings along the city’s new Ringstrasse, so Makart’s ponderously upholstered female sitters are posed in deliberate emulation of Rubens and Gainsborough, the artist’s professional vanity squeezing the life out of his subject in the process.

More arresting altogether is a pair of contrasted Klimts, revealing a dramatic shift in style over a single decade. Marie Breunig, buxom young wife of a rich baker, got up in stark black amid an art-school ensemble of impeccable orthodoxy, confronts Hermine Gallia, a disembodied spirit whose mournful handsomeness of feature is enhanced by the background’s ethereal half-tones.

The show, as a whole, offers striking cultural perspectives, underlined by some excellent catalogue essays from its curator Gemma Blackshaw. If it has what the French call a clou, a pivotal moment, then this will be for most visitors, I suspect, Isidor Kaufman’s small portrait of a beautiful young rabbi, standing before an embroidered curtain across the cupboard of the Torah scrolls. His glance, tempering sternness and wisdom with an engaging modesty, will not let us go.

For an extended version of this review buy next week’s edition of The Catholic Herald, out on 18/10/13